A Nautical Nod to a Hotel's Past - Design Bureau

Dream Downtown Hotel, New York, NY

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Photo by Handel Architects

A Nautical Nod to a Hotel’s Past

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

By Nalina Moses

From down the street, all you see are circles. From up close, all you see are…circles. This is the Dream Hotel, one of Manhattan’s newest and swankiest places to stay. 

The circles aren’t original to the mid-century building that lies underneath Dream’s stainless steel front, but they definitely take the lead from its architecture. The Annex to the National Maritime Union is a signature work from the 1960’s by architect Albert C. Ledner. It originally featured a sloping façade lined with porthole windows. And even though rounds of renovations had battered the building over the years, it still remained an arresting presence in downtown Manhattan, looking more like the midsection of an ocean liner than a piece of modernist concrete architectural history. 

To re-envision Dream’s structure, hospitality impresario Vikram Chatwal called on Handel Architects. Partner-in-charge Frank Fusaro set out to honor Ledner’s design without remaining slavishly faithful to it. “The aspect of the Ledner building that was important for us to save was its ‘otherness’, its contrast to everything around it—that’s what we tried to preserve and amplify,” Fusaro says. To transform the building, Handel built two new façades over the existing structure. A sloping surface of quilt-like panels and hundreds of round windows compose the first, while vertical metal panels punched with saucer-like openings make up the second. And inside, circles are everywhere. Every room explodes into giddy discs, globes, and spots, reminding guests of Ledner’s ocean liner design

Keeping on top of the world
Since Ledner’s building was full of caustic materials like asbestos and lead paint, Fusaro and the Handel team knew they had to hem in the hotel’s environmental impact. They hired AKRF, an environmental consulting firm to get its hands dirty. “We were able to provide the project team with information such as required noise attenuation levels under city regulations; shadows studies representing the potential shadows cast by the hotel; and solar studies showing the extent and duration of sunlight cast onto the hotel,” says Lisa M. Lau, a vice president at AKRF.  After running test after test and study after study, Handel marched down to the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals with a complete environmental impact statement ready for review. And thanks to AKRF’s thorough work, the approval went right through.

Perfect Circles 
All those circles at the Dream Hotel provided a golden creative opportunity for Schüco windows. “Schüco has produced thousands of square and rectangular windows with great success, but a building such as Dream is stunning,” says Brad Davis, Schüco’s architectural services director. “The circular openings of the windows are a major factor of the uniqueness.” To make the form live up to its function, Davis and his team installed windows that are hinged on the horizontal plane, allowing for the minimum four-inch opening dictated by the new York building code. While this wasn’t their preferred option, it did satisfy the demands of both the building department and handel’s designers without sacrificing too much style. And Davis couldn’t be happier with the results. “From our perspective as the window supplier, there is nothing we would change,” he says. “The end result is brilliant.” 

Making the Dream a Reality
Ledner’s building was far from a dream to renovate. “Many unforeseen challenges, including existing concealed conditions between the adjacent properties, material procurement, and coordination from all around the globe, arose,” says Martin McGowan, president of McGowan Builders and the force behind Dream’s construction. McGowan listed constant communication, appreciation, and consciousness of Handel’s design as the keys to achieving the hotel’s ethereal aesthetic—skills that were stretched to the limit while building the pool suspended over Dream’s main lobby. To deliver the glass-bottomed pool without compromising its design, McGowan had to creatively engage New York health codes, broker global materials trades, and oversee a rigorous construction schedule, but the end result was well worth it.

Recently, Dream received the most exclusive stamp of approval of all: that of Ledner himself, who’s now retired and lives in New Orleans. He even wrote a letter to Fusaro praising Dream’s design. “He related the original architectural design to an unfinished cut gem, and the renovated design he called a ‘finished cut gem’,” Fusaro says.  A gem of a design, indeed. 


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